CultureMarch 30, 2011
Last time, I argued that the purpose of education was to make people smarter and observed that we would need to consider what it meant to be smarter.
The first point that needs to be made is that I do not accept that the development of the intellect is something that happens in a vacuum. I do not accept that there is a single unitary property of the mind that is summed up by “smartness”. While it may be possible to create a single metric for intellectual functioning, Gould (1996) describes convincingly the many efforts to conceptualise this as a single property of the intellect, usually known as “intelligence”, have consistently been unjustified and biased by the prejudices of those seeking to identify the property. He also observes the extent to which supposedly inherent properties of the intellect can invariably be traced to environment and education. Gardner (1983) describes a number of different properties of the intellect (which he names “intelligences”) and demonstrates the evidence that, at least in some individuals, these qualities can exist independently and are subject to the effects of training and education.
What goes for “intelligence”, is even more clearly the case for less hygienic concepts such as “smartness”, “cleverness” and “the intellect”. While there may be components of the intellect that occur naturally in the untrained mind, when we describe how smart someone is we are referring to a selection of qualities that we value in our particular context, and most of which can be deliberately cultivated. We have to accept that what we consider to be smart changes over time, and is different in different countries and different eras even though, no doubt, there are common elements to views about the intellect in different societies. When we identify what makes somebody smart we identify what types of knowledge and what types of thinking are valued. Arnold (1869) calls this “culture”:
“culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”
This might be a starting point for debate rather than an end; people have widely different ideas of what is the best, but at least we know that this is what we are looking for. We are looking to pass on the most worthwhile parts of our intellectual inheritance. It seems less debateable when we recognise that most academic disciplines do have within them some consensus about what are the most valuable fruits of that discipline, and where there isn’t a consensus, we can normally identify which positions are coherent parts of an intellectual tradition and which are ideological fads. We should remember that schools are there to pass on what is considered intellectually valuable in our culture rather than to change our culture. The commitment to pass on what is best in the world is not permission to disown the world. Arendt (1961) explains that:
“…the educators here stand in relation to the young as representatives of a world for which they must assume responsibility although they themselves did not make it, and even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is. The responsibility is not arbitrarily imposed upon educators; it is implicit in the fact that the young are introduced by adults into a continuously changing world.”
There are political questions here. I know this can be portrayed as simple conservatism, but I believe it is just describing something inherent to a coherent notion of education. The belief that the school must be part of the world as it is should not be confused with the belief that the world as it is must never change, or that children are not the new part of the world:
“To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something – the child against the world, the world against the child the new against the old, the old against the new – Even the comprehensive responsibility for the world that is thereby assumed implies, of course, a conservative attitude. But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among adults and equals.”
To develop the intellect in children is to introduce them to part of the world. We are not dealing with an abstract property of the brain which can be directly accessed by a curriculum empty of actual content. We still need to consider how the intellect engages with culture, but we cannot doubt that it must, for our very notion of the intellect requires that it cannot be ignorant. A developed intellect must be firmly anchored in knowledge even if it does not consist only of the holding of knowledge. It is for this reason that INSET which favours dumbing-down is always prone to start with talk of “skills for the twenty-first century”, “preparing for jobs which don’t even exist yet” or “relevance”. All these are ploys to suggest that there is a great discontinuity between intellects in the past and those in the future. To truly empty the minds of the next generation then they must first be inoculated against the contents of the minds of all previous generations. The greatest theft that educators can commit is to steal, from the next generation, their intellectual inheritance.
Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961
Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1869
Gardner, Howard Frames of Mind, Fontana Press, 1983
Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man: Revised and expanded. W. W. Norton, 1996